C-30, C-60, C-90, No!!!
Can someone explain the resurgence of cassette tapes to me? I am not kidding. There is a lot to this question, and one assumes there is at least much involved in the answer, and I am not unaware that I might make some enemies here. I would actually welcome it because it would at least prove that someone does in fact care about this and it’s just not just the arbitrary cool-ness posturing it seems to be, and maybe it would wipe away at least some of the ignorance I have about what, to me, is a disturbing trend at best and a near-degenerate level of Hipster irony at worst.
Some explanation to start things off:
1) I have not sought out (read: cared enough to actually investigate) how or when or why this became cool. Of course I follow some record stores and record labels online and visit some of the former IRL whenever possible, but I feel like this whole thing just kind of sprung up a couple of years ago for no apparent reason and now appears to be actually, inex-fucking-plicably gaining traction. In that time, I have actually purposefully avoided anything that might answer the primary question of this discussion, though part of me is sure that there have been volumes written on the specifics, as is true with most pop culture trends. In many ways, my utter dunderheadedness on this topic is completely and admittedly willful.
2) I get analog. I am using “get” here in the colloquial sense of understanding at the most basic and primordial level (like the way one gets thermodynamics, or writing computer code…or the movie Roadhouse)–I completely understand why analog sound has come back from the brink in the form of vinyl records. A treatise on the relative qualities of the audio is here wholly unnecessary and would take away from my overall point (if there even is a point, you be the judge), but suffice it to say I know that analog sound reproduction can be greatly superior to its more en vogue digital counterparts on several different levels–and I know this both as a music lover/avid listener AND as a certified audio engineer (holla!). While this appreciation is admittedly subjective, it is an appreciation I admit to embracing wholeheartedly. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am listening to music on vinyl as I type this and I am fucking loving it.)
3) I grew up in the 80’s. This seems obvious, a little embarrassing, and possibly even superfluous, but it is important because I came of age at a time when the cassette tape was both the predominant form of premeditated music listening (i.e. not the radio) and the only way to share music. I actually made myself believe, for a time, that cassettes were better than CDs in every conceivable way–a belief that was both 1) born out of jealousy of friends/family that had CD technology at their disposal and 2) unceremoniously discarded the very moment I made enough money on my paper route to buy my first CD-playing bookshelf stereo.
All that said, I have serious problems with the indie culture’s new fascination with tapes in 2017 CE. And they are listed herein.
1) They don’t sound as good as…pretty much anything. I’m not just saying that they don’t compare to vinyl. I’m saying that I can’t imagine one method of listening that the cassette doesn’t pale in comparison to. Can you?
2) They’re not convenient. They don’t have the universality or ease-of-use one associates with digital sound files. And they don’t have an inherent aurally-significant reason–see (1) above–to put up with the inconvenience, or to invest in a new apparatus to make them more convenient (e.g. putting a tape deck in your car, etc).
3) They don’t last. The very idea of a cassette is temporary. It is finite in the worst possible way. In many ways, buying an album on cassette simply means you’re buying it for the first time. This is versus nearly any other medium where you would be, in theory anyway, buying it the only time you would ever need to. From the moment you first depress that PLAY button, not only will your listening experiences be numbered, but they will also deteriorate in quality each time. Magnetic tape can be great for some purposes–repeated listening is in no way one of them.
I submit, given the above points, that the whole thing is a ploy perpetrated by a new coterie of Hipsters to make us all feel slightly less cool, or much less cool (depending on your pre-existing idea of Hipsterism and its adherents). The whole thing feels like a group of wannabe acolytes trying to muck things up for the rest of us. …
(A brief dialog on Hipsters. There is not much I can say here that hasn’t been pontificated upon for and against since at least the early 2000’s [notably in The Hipster Handbook, an old favorite of mine], so I will keep it as brief as possible. In general, the fashion is to “hate” Hipsters [and I am using the capital-H for a reason: to wit, for the delineation of the Hipster as a cultural subgroup], while never admitting to being at least somewhat a Hipster yourself, in at least some small way. I am a bit too old for certain pretensions, though certainly not all, and so I have made peace with the fact that I could easily be perceived a Hipster by certain people, in certain places at certain times. I am OK with this. I have accepted that it doesn’t really mean anything about me as a person. There is always a seemingly exclusive sect of poseurs present at any rock show, in any record store, at any coffee shop, that I would automatically identify as Hipster because they seem to be more attuned to prevailing trends [or to more modern/ post-modern ways of improving upon or eschewing such trends] than I am. I am also OK with this. The designation of “Hipster” has indeed become a mercurial concept, and I think at this point anyone who either is, or is trying to be, “cooler” than you at any given time can be considered a Hipster and easily dismissed as such. And I will stop here before we get into Inception-esque layers of meaning or the illusion of meaning and just say that I don’t really hate Hipsters anymore. In practical terms, and this may well be the entire thesis behind the rant you are currently reading, I just don’t get* it. [*”get” used as above])
… and to me the whole thing feels disingenuous. Like it is something that people have made cool again only for the fact that it is contrary to other things that have been considered cool for a while. It feels like Back To The Future II: do you remember watching that film and being horrified at the twisted vision of fashion in “The Future”? It was like people in the year two-thousand-and-whatever WANTED to look stupid. It was so far removed from what we knew to be cool in 1989 that it felt like the costume- and production designers were just having a go at us (“Look at that hair! CRAZY, right?! That’s the future, dudes!“). That’s what cassettes are to me in 2014–so far removed from the good parts of listening to music that they feel like a goddam slap in the face. It is almost as if every “cool” merch-salesperson I ever saw at every rock show I’ve ever been to got together and looked for a way to mess with the rest of us (very, “Oh, records were cool for a while, but now they're literally OVER…” or “Yeah, I’m pretty much buying all my music on tape now because everyone’s buying records…”). And if it seems I’m taking this phenomenon a bit too personally, just know that I take everything a bit too personally–we all have our crosses to bear.
To sum it up in a few succinct statements: 1) Tapes have no intrinsic superiority over other listening methods. 2) They arguably are the least convenient/lowest-quality way to listen to pre-recorded music in the modern era. 3) It seems like they’re only cool now because some people say they’re cool.
It is very possible that I am missing something inherently valid here. It is possible that I have fallen so far behind the pace of what’s cool that my own supposed coolness is only a shadow,a memory. It is more than possible that I am just a thirtysomething who feels like he’s overdue for a good “slash-and-burn”-style diatribe that only makes him look more pathetic. I accept these things, and, in a very real way, I hope I’m wrong about this because it would be sad to think that a cottage industry is booming now that has no real shelf life. And let's face it, if you genuinely prefer cassettes, there's no judgement here…er, no real judgement. There is only the fact that I don't understand your preference.
But if I’m right, and there’s no damn point to any of this…then fuck you, Hipsters. And the tapes you recorded yourselves on.
(Note: this piece was originally posted in 2014 on a blog I shared with my sister that was criminally underseen [EDITOR: That's biased.]. Now that I need a shot in the arm of content, seems like a good time to resurrect it. I had to change very little of it, TBH - although I will ashamedly admit that it had a parenthetical title in its original incarnation: (The Hipsters' Crusade). Yeah...I'm not proud of that.)